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Cruising With Special Dietary Needs
Onboard the Disney Cruise Line

 


 

By JeniLynn Knopp

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Living with a dietary restriction can feel like prison. Challenged families often find themselves excluded from activities when food is involved. When they are included, the difficulty to accommodate the condition may not seem worth the effort.  I know.  I’ve walked in these shoes.

Over the years my thoughts occasionally drifted towards taking a Disney cruise. Who doesn’t dream about this possibility from time to time? However, when I did, I always hesitated due to the issue of food.

It only takes one conversation with an experienced cruiser to realize that eating is a central focus of cruising. People talk as if they are eating all day, everyday, everywhere. This can present some stress for an adult who can’t indulge with others. Translate that same situation to a parent with a child on a special diet, and this is a potential recipe for meltdowns . . . or so I thought.

In reality, Disney made cruising with dietary restrictions a rather seamless process. Before I even stepped foot on the ship, each concern was addressed. From the moment I boarded, each burden was carried for me. As our cruise continued to sail, every fear was abated.

THE PREPARATION

Families that live with special diets “live and die” by preparation. Their lives revolve around it so as to avoid dire consequences, and often the labor of “prepping” can be exhausting. This was not the case when I booked my Disney cruise.

The extent of my preparation was as simple as asking my travel agent to alert Disney Cruise Line of my oldest daughter’s allergy. That was it. “Peanut/egg allergy with gluten/dairy sensitivity” was notated on our reservation, and we were ready to go. I was assured that our dining crew would be informed as well as the staff of the kids’ clubs so that everyone was on the same page and ready to accommodate her.

In the event that I had more specific questions or concerns, my travel agent gave me the phone number of DCL Guest Services (407-566-3602). I was also given an email if I found that to be a more convenient form of correspondence (DCL.Special.Request.Medical@Disney.com). Having this information automatically given to me as opposed to having to hunt it down myself definitely set the stage for a relaxing trip.

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THE OPTIONS

There are three options for eating onboard: counter service, self-serve buffet, and full-service restaurants. Each option provides assistance for special dietary needs. Some provide it more readily than others.

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Counter Service

The counter service on the ship is open nearly all hours; however, it is probably the least desirable in terms of providing items suitable for most dietary restrictions. This is where you will find the “fast food” entrees. Pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and cookies are the primary fare. During certain hours, you may be able to get salads, wraps, and fruit as well. However, for the most part it’s a haven for many of the allergens that trigger gastrointestinal distress.

The counter service restaurants are, in fact, capable of accommodating dietary requests. If you request to speak to a manager, the manager will be able to point out any items available that meet particular specifications. Also, if given notice in advance (such as the night before) the counter service can have something prepared for you. All that is needed is your particular request, the time that you choose to pick up your order, and some patience in working out arrangements with the staff.

Our family did not utilize this option for meals though. The advanced notice and extra time needed for accommodation seemed to defeat the idea of a convenient, quick-service feast; therefore, we hit the counter service for simple snacks in between meals. It was a great place to grab an apple, orange, or even watermelon slice while we waited for the next substantial meal.

Self-Service Buffet

The self-serve buffets are open for a couple hours during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As expected, the buffets are a cornucopia of options. Normally, this is a scene that makes the mouth water. For a gastrointestinally-challenged individual, though, it can feel more like a minefield of hidden allergens lurking within any given entrée. For this reason, chefs are on hand to speak with about dietary concerns.

After discussing your particular situation with a chef, you will be walked through the buffet and shown which food items are “safe.” In the event that none of the buffet offerings satisfy your desires, a meal can be made specifically for you. Once again, though, time and patience will be needed while you wait for your request to be accommodated. However, just as with the counter service, giving advanced notice of what you would like and when you would like it can expedite the procedure.

We found the buffets to be more than satisfactory. There were enough items that my daughter could eat without issue to provide a substantial meal. She simply ate those things in larger quantities while the rest of us had smaller samplings of a wider food range. It provided for many enjoyable breakfasts and lunches. We could come and go as we pleased for the most part and avail ourselves of massive quantities of food without feeling like we were creating more work for anyone.

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Full-Dining Restaurants

There is a sit-down restaurant open for each meal time. The dining set-up is changed according to the particular restaurant. For example, if you are attending one restaurant for breakfast, there may be a buffet with the option to order food. In another restaurant, you may simply be offered a menu from which to order. Regardless, the same basic principles apply in that the crew is available to accommodate your circumstances.

This is the preferred venue for dining with dietary restrictions. Not only is it a more pleasant experience for you, it is a more pleasant experience for the staff because they are better equipped to handle the matter. The restaurants are already notified of each dietary restriction, and with their kitchens best suited for making individual meals, chefs feel most comfortable attending to you in this setting.

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Dinner is the meal when their service shines brightest. When we had dinner on our first night, our assistant server, server, head server and chef were already informed of our circumstances. They greeted our table and briefly double-checked their information. After that, they were ready to roll.

The dining menu for each evening has 3 options that are gluten-free and dairy-free: a grilled grain-fed sirloin steak, a slow roasted breast of chicken, and an oven-baked fillet of salmon. There are a couple vegetarian items listed on each menu as well; however, no one is doomed to repeat the same meals every night. The chefs are more than happy to fix you something entirely different once they understand your food preferences.

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My daughter usually ordered from the main menu, and her entrees were modified to make them safe for her. Many times (even when I had overlooked a potential hidden allergen), the chef’s careful eye caught it and made the adjustments without further questioning. If we were being served rolls, she automatically received a basket of her own that was gluten-free. If she ordered a dish with rice and fried ocra, the fried food was eliminated without my specific instruction. If she wanted pasta that evening, the chef provided a modified version of the meal that was “safe” for her without my particular request.

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Each night we were invited to pre-order my daughter’s meal for the following evening. The menu for the next meal was given to us ahead of time so that she could make a selection. With this, the chef would already know how to modify it and prepare it before we even sat down. Our family was able to receive our meals with the same speed as others each night due to the fact there was no time wasted in discussion and creative improvisation upon our arrival.

In addition to their successful preparation, I found the staff effectively anticipating our needs before I even knew we had them. One evening my daughter ordered a dessert item, not realizing that egg was an ingredient. The error was discovered back in the kitchen by our chef. Rather than holding up the process by sending our server back to the table to negotiate a new choice, our chef was pro-active. He fixed her a dessert item that she had pre-ordered for our meal on the following day. By doing this he was still able to serve our family dessert in a timely manner and provided her with something he knew that she already wanted. I was impressed on all accounts.

CASTAWAY CAY

Most Disney cruise itineraries include a day on Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay. Rest assured that Disney’s special dietary accommodation does not stop once you get off the boat. Special arrangements can be made for dietary requests at this one port as well.

Just as we were able to make arrangements through our server and pre-select a  “safe” meal for the following night, we were also able to do this the night before our day of docking at Castaway Cay. We were told that my daughter’s meal would then be available for her to claim at Cookie’s BBQ, Disney’s outdoor buffet.

While Cookie’s does provide a variety of food options for guests, I recommend making these arrangements. It is always best to err on the side of caution. No one wants to be caught on an island only to discover that the food is forbidden.

 

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THE SUPERVISION

An embarkation dining session is offered on the date of sailing. This is an option for any guest with special dietary needs and takes place during boarding hours. When you board the ship, ask a staff member about the dining session. They will direct you to its location. During the session, dining representatives such as servers and chefs are on hand to discuss your individual situation, and it is a good opportunity to make sure that everyone handling your food throughout the your cruise is on the same page.

The restaurant staff is not the only department alerted to special dietary needs. When the individual is a child, the crew that attends to the kids’ club is notified as well. There is a reason for this.

Sometimes, by choice, children remain in the kids’ club during meal times. In those instances, the club does provide kid-friendly foods to the children (such as chicken nuggets, pizza, cookies, etc.)  However, when a child has been noted with dietary restrictions, care is taken to separate the child from the area where the forbidden food is being served. The club is large enough and offers so many varied activities that this is easily done without the isolated child even noticing the separation.

My youngest daughter does not currently have a diagnosed food allergy; however, she is aware that we try to be mindful of her food choices. So while she was in the kids’ club, she and the staff were instructed to not serve her any food while she was in there. She found it easy enough to do because the fun activities were in such abundance. She simply removed herself from the area and was happily occupied by staff in a new activity. She never seemed to exhibit a sense of deprivation. Instead, she usually showed me a craft that she worked on with the “exclusive” attention of a caretaker.

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THE EXPERIENCE

That sad truth about families living with dietary restrictions is that they often also live with a stigma. For whatever reason, an inability to conform to a standard diet tends to elicit a negative reaction from others. Frequently, the family is treated as a nuisance. Occasionally, the condition isn’t even recognized as legitimate, and the family is labeled “out of touch with reality.” Because of this, the condition becomes one that is not only physically isolating but also emotionally isolating. Imagine how it feels to have it implied that rather than the condition being a burden, you are the burden. Unfortunately, this is a truth for so many people that endure the already difficult situation of food intolerances.

I have to say that not once did my family ever feel this way during our Disney cruise. From the initial booking to debarkation, we were treated with respect and genuine concern for our situation. Every effort was made on their part to make our experience effortless.

Instead of being met with the usual legwork of pre-planning, Disney took on the brunt of the labor. There was very little I had to do in preparation, and they guided me through the process. I cannot fully relay my relief when I realized I did not have to “educate” the people preparing our meals. In many ways, they were the ones who ended up educating me. Most importantly, my daughter was never made to feel like an inconvenience nor was I made to feel like a melodramatic mother. Quite the contrary, we were made to feel like royalty with staff readily attending to our needs.

After our experience on the Disney Cruise Line, I realize that any initial fear that I had prior to embarking no longer seems valid. Our situation was given undivided attention and utmost care. It enabled my family to actually relax as we sailed because we rested the entire time, knowing that we were in good hands.